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Strategies to bring on independent learners

There is a lot of common ground between Assessment is for Learning and A Curriculum for Excellence, but much of this is still uncharted. Highland has been laying trails and making maps. Navigation has been aided by landmarks raised by research and good practice in the use of thinking skills in the classroom.

Development officer Kevin Logan says: "I had a mixed-ability maths class. We used a technique called jigsawing, with the kids working in small groups to review a section and identify the key things they needed to learn, then getting together as a class to produce a revision pack for the whole course, written by them, for them."

The pupils did well in their exams, says Mr Logan, so when they returned to start sixth year, he asked which part of the pack they had found most useful.

"They all said it wasn't the pack that had made the difference, so much as the process of creating it. The dialogue with their peers, the responsibility to colleagues who would read it, helped them understand what it was all about."

In the same way, the CPD pack being prepared by Mr Logan and his colleagues to stimulate debate about formative assessment has grown from a process which has been highly productive. Deeper thinking and better understanding are key elements of the new learning practice. It starts with teachers.

Thinking skills, formative assessment and the development of the four capacities to produce successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors, will become embedded in classroom practice only when teachers have grown thoroughly familiar and fully engaged with the underlying philosophy, says Mr Logan.

This is the aim of the CPD seminars and conferences for Highland teachers by Robert Fisher and Pamela Robertson on thinking and talking to learn, Laurie and Spencer Kagan on co-operative learning, and Brian Boyd on a range of topics, from brain-based learning to creating the Assessment is for Learning school.

"Kevin and I first got together to produce CPD on thinking skills for teachers, and deliver it in Highland, about 15 years ago," says Professor Boyd of Strathclyde University.

"We have now broadened it out to make the connections between thinking skills, Assessment is for Learning and A Curriculum for Excellence."

Highland has also produced an online learning and teaching toolkit, created by seconded teachers, which covers thinking skills, peer and self-assessment, constructive feedback and so on.

Chemistry teacher Marie Sutherland, having taught for years in Africa, welcomed the chance to broaden her teaching perspectives using the toolkit and CPD.

"As long as you're getting through the curriculum and the SQA are happy with your results, you often don't think too much about how you're doing it," says the chartered teacher from Charleston Academy, Inverness.

Having embraced richer interactions and pupil-centred learning, Mrs Sutherland then spent some time on secondment introducing thinking skills to primary and then secondary schools.

"I have found that some things don't work well with some classes. So as a teacher you have to be adaptable," she says.

Teachers are not the only ones who need time to adapt to new methodologies, she says. "Co-operative learning doesn't work well in classes where kids can't be open and trusting. Also, pupils often prefer to be taught in the way that they're used to. If you do something too different, they think you're not teaching them properly. That will take time to change, as kids come up from primary school already familiar with the variety of new methods."

"Time for reflection is the one thing staff crave more than anything else,"

says Calum McSween, headteacher at Charleston Academy.

"Teachers have welcomed Assessment is for Learning, but many regard it as just good teaching. That's a great starting point, because we can then look at what we mean by good teaching, in primary and secondary schools and across the departments."

Architecture, timetable, tradition and curriculum all contribute to making innovation harder in secondary than in primary schools, he says.

"The learning and teaching toolkit is very useful. It has papers for teachers, departments or whole schools that want to explore aspects of learning and teaching. The Assessment is for Learning section, in particular, is a terrific resource that pulls it all together."

Education consultant Eric Young takes a different tack, believing the perception that Assessment is for Learning is "just good teaching" needs to be challenged. "The trouble with that viewpoint is that it prevents you from recognising the importance of handing responsibility for their own learning to the pupils," he says.

"We need to get them assessing themselves more effectively, then extend that to other aspects of AifL, like personal learning planning and local moderation, and beyond that to the four capacities in A Curriculum for Excellence.

"We're building CPD and resources that will support that kind of deep understanding. So there is a lot more to it than just good teaching."

The transformation will not happen overnight, says Professor Boyd. "That's because it is not about tips and handy hints. It's about giving teachers a depth of understanding of what they do when they help kids to learn.

"From the kids' perspective, they are gaining strategies that will enable them to learn in new and challenging circumstances."

A Curriculum for Excellence is about producing critical, creative, independent learners, who can solve problems and direct their own learning, says Mr Logan.

"But you won't get that without reflective professionals."

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